Fiji’s Democracy: Why Fostering Constructive Discussion is Vital Now

Oct 24, 2014

Opinion: Osnat Lubrani, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative

This year, United Nations (UN) Day will be particularly memorable for me. It will mark almost one year since I took up my role as the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative here and almost one month since the world celebrated Fiji’s return to democracy.

On that day in September I spoke to many people as they queued patiently to cast their votes. The sense of happiness that this historic vote had finally come was palpable. There was hope in the air for what democracy would bring. As the sun set on election day, the successful vote signalled an important step forward for Fiji’s transition to democracy.

Likewise, after an eight-year suspension, earlier this month we witnessed the first sitting of Fiji’s Parliament. There have been other ‘firsts’ this month too.

It was inspiring to see so many women take their seat among the members of parliament, and to hear Fiji’s first female elected speaker, Dr Jiko Luveni, in her initial parliamentary address, encourage young women to reach their full potential “even perhaps by pursuing a political career.” Much more needs to be done for Fiji to realize full gender equality, but the nation is clearly moving in the right direction. Women are now in a better position to succeed politically as equal partners to their male counterparts. 

As the UN, it has been our privilege to support the members prepare for the new sitting of Parliament. Their role as elected representatives is crucial for ensuring that all Fijians feel confident that through the new Parliament different opinions can be voiced, discussions can be held and consensus and agreement can be reached. My hope is that we will see robust but respectful debate and also constructive cooperation across party divides, so that Parliament can be effective in fulfilling its duties to approve legislation and oversee government accountability.  

This kind of constructive, open and free debate will be vital for Fiji’s democracy to thrive. Why? Because it is often in Parliaments that we see ideas raised and debates on policies taking place.

On a national scale, fostering open and free debate would also allow people from all walks of life to voice their concerns and have these heard in public policy-making. In his speech at the UN General Assembly, the Prime Minister said that his government is “determined to leave no-one behind.” Fostering a political culture anchored in genuinely open discussion is key to achieving the Prime Minister’s commendable aspiration.

Creating such a political culture will be challenging as it will require doing things differently, but the potential rewards are immeasurable. It would mean a louder voice for young people who, by making-up 46 percent of the voters in the September election, proved that they want to have their concerns heard and to participate in improving opportunities for youth. It would mean a richer exchange between generations. It would mean a greater voice for people from varying cultural backgrounds, women, and the many other different groups who make-up Fijian society. Ultimately, it would mean that development challenges, such as ensuring decent work and harmonious labour relations, would be better understood and addressed, improving the quality of life for many, many Fijians.   

Civil society has an important role to play in creating such a culture of inclusivity and participation and their wider engagement needs to be supported. Likewise, a strong and independent media sector is essential for fostering genuine free and open debate in Parliament and in wider society. It is our hope that in the coming weeks we will see Fiji embrace wider media freedoms as a crucial next step on the road towards democracy.  

Fiji’s ability to foster free and open debate and to build consensus for the benefit of all will also be vital as the new democratic state cements its regional leadership. Whether discussing climate change, promoting trade and investment or addressing regional security threats, the Pacific’s regional agenda is huge and challenging. This is clearly a time for constructive discussion to find common ground and to take concerted action. 

On the occasion of UN Day, I’d also like to reflect on the incredible contribution that the 734 Fijians serving on UN peacekeeping missions around the world make every day. They are often working in difficult and, as were reminded in September, dangerous situations. We applaud them.

In Fiji, 16 UN agencies and programmes are supporting development across many areas: governance, health, decent work, children’s rights, gender equality, climate change and many more. I would like to reiterate our readiness to work with the newly elected authorities and the people of Fiji to achieve national development aspirations. I hope that when we reflect on next year’s UN Day many more milestones will have been reached. 

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